Ambushing in Western Virginia

Saturday, July 6, 1861

General George McClellan liked to think that he had an intimate knowledge of everything under his command. At this time, he was micromanaging the planned assault on Confederate General Garnett’s men near Beverly, western Virginia. Without McClellan’s knowledge or orders, Captain Lawson led fifty men of the Third Ohio out of Buckhannon, towards the Rebel fortifications on Rich Mountain.

Starting the previous evening, they took small mountain paths to the Beverly Pike, where they camped for the night. In the morning, keeping north of the main road, Lawson and his men climbed over a mountain into the valley created by Middle Creek. There were rumors of “rebel marauders” who were pillaging houses of good, upstanding Unionists, causing their women and children to flee into the woods.

His small band found the creek, with brush and briers thick along its banks, and slowly edged south back towards the Pike. Nearing the covered bridge that crossed the creek, he discovered that it was held by the Rebels, perhaps 300 in number (but also perhaps a lot less). Though this would have been a great spot for an ambush, the Confederates also saw him and sent out five skirmishers to flush them out.

Since Lawson’s men had fairly good hiding spots, the five Rebels stumbled upon them as the Union troops stood up to fire. Both Rebels and Yankees fired upon each other at the same time. Two of the Rebels dropped while the other three ran back to the bridge, as the main body of Confederates opened fire from the bridge, the embankment and and the hill above.

To get a better shot, Lawson moved his men nearer to the Pike and poured a vicious fire upon the Rebels, which they returned, hitting a few men and killing another. The Confederates hiding in the embankment had the best shots. They could pop their heads up, take aim and fire off shots as they pleased. A Union Corporal was hit in the foot and fell to the ground. “Captain, I’m hit,” he cried out, “but I must have another shot!” Standing on one foot, he fired two more times and then fainted from loss of blood.

Another was hit in the head by buckshot. One of the balls cracked his skull, lodging itself in the bone. He too fell, but was able to stand to fire another shot at the Rebels. Less than five minutes later, Captian Lawson ordered a retreat.

They made it back to camp by midmorning, carrying their wounded, but not their dead.1

As is to be expected, accounts on both sides vary. A Confederate account numbers the Union attackers at 100, though with the underbrush and surprise, it’s easy to understand how that might happen. The account also claims that even though the Union troops had “superior numbers,” they were repulsed, “leaving one dead on the field.”

The Union report claims that “some [Confederates] were killed on the bridge” and that “seven were killed outside the bridge.” The Confederates reported only three wounded.

Strangely, both the Union and Confederates claim to have retreated from the bridge. The Rebels noted that the “pickets were compelled to retire” after the Union troops appeared in large force. In McClellan’s mention of the skirmish, he complains that he had to send most of the rest of the Third Ohio Regiment to cover Lawson’s retreat from the Skirmish of Middle Creek.2


Down by the Kanawha Valley

Confederate Generals Wise and Floyd were both operating in and around the Kanawha Valley of western Virginia, over 100 miles southwest of McClellan. General Wise, former Governor of Virginia, moved his Legion of Confederates into Charleston on this date while General Floyd, former US Secretary of War, remained at Wytheville, 125 miles farther south.

To counter the Rebels, McClellan dispatched Brig-General Jacob Cox and whatever regiments remained at Camp Dennison near Cincinnati. By the end of day, he had two regiments moving up the Ohio River towards Point Pleasant. The next day, he would leave with a third. Two more regiments would soon follow.3

Opposite McClellan, Confederate General Garnett wrote to General Lee that, since the Kanawha Valley was fairly pro-Southern, it could be easily held with General Floyd’s force. General Wise, thought Garnett, could move north towards Rich Mountain (he suggested the village of Bulltown), so McClellan would have to detach some of his men to meet the new threat. Meanwhile, though Garnett had received some reinforcements and he believed the number of McClellan’s troops to be exaggerated, he was very uncertain how he was to hold back the Union troops gathering around him.4


With Rebels to His Front, Patterson Needs More Troops

In Martinsburg, Union General Patterson was receiving the reinforcements he requested in order to follow the Confederate Army of the Shenandoah, which, until this morning, had been at Darkesville, seven miles south of his camp. Col. Thomas Jackson’s Brigade had moved back to that line after the Battle of Falling Waters. There, they were joined by General Joseph Johnston, army commander. Fearing that Patterson might actually make a move, however, Johnston decided to fall back to Winchester, taking Jackson’s Brigade with him.

En route to Patterson were regiments from New York and Wisconsin, as well as Col. Lew Wallace’s Indiana Zouaves from Cumberland, Maryland (formerly under General McClellan’s command) and Col. Stone’s Brigade from the Rockville Expedition. He also asked for another regiment, stating that Johnston’s army was now 26,000 strong. Patterson over-estimated by roughly 15,000.5

  1. The Rebellion Record, Vol. 2 by Edward Everett – Originally appeared as an article in the Cincinnati Commercial. []
  2. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p200, 255. []
  3. Lee Vs. McClellan by Newell. []
  4. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p241-242. []
  5. Official Records, Series 1, Vol. 2, p159. []
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